In June 1861 Walter Dignam’s Manchester Cornet Band accompanied the newly-organized Second Regiment of the New Hampshire Volunteer Infantry (Second N.H. Regiment) to war, arriving in Washington, D.C., on June 23. Less than four weeks later, on July 21, 1861, the regiment took part in the First Battle of Bull Run. This was the first major engagement of the Civil War, and it was expected to be an easy victory for the Union Army. Instead, the battle ended as a demoralizing disaster for the federal forces. From that time until the Second N.H. Regiment was mustered out in August 1864, the unit would participate in some of the Civil War’s most intense conflicts, including the Second Battle of Bull Run (1862), Fredericksburg (1862), Gettysburg (1863), and Cold Harbor (1864).
The Manchester Cornet Band had been hired with private money, and the musicians were not enlisted in the army. So, the band separated from the Second N.H. Regiment before the First Battle of Bull Run and returned to Manchester. In early September 1861, Walter Dignam and the 24 or so members of the Manchester Cornet Band enlisted in the Fourth Regiment of the New Hampshire Volunteer Infantry (Fourth N.H. Regiment) which was being organized in Manchester. They were joined by their former bandmate, Francis Harvey “Saxie” Pike, who had just completed a three-month enlistment as the Principal Musician, Fife Major of the First N.H. Regiment.
Walter Dignam was assigned as the band leader for the Fourth N.H.’s band, with the rank of Second Lieutenant. Saxie Pike was appointed as Fife Major, and Henry J. White of Lawrence, Mass. as the regiment’s Drum Major. While the regimental bands provided entertainment in camp and for special occasions, and played the marching music for parades, a regiment’s official fifer and drummer were specifically responsible for basic communications within the regiment throughout the day. They made the calls necessary to maintain order in camp, on the march, and on the battlefield.
On Sept. 18, 1861, the official mustering-in of the 1,000 or so officers and soldiers of the Fourth N.H. Regiment took place on Manchester’s fairgrounds, located between what are now Brook and Webster streets along the north end of Elm Street. The regiment included 10 companies: four from Manchester; one a combined company made up of men from Manchester and Derry; and one company each representing Dover, Nashua, Laconia, Great Falls (now Somersworth), and Salem.
In his 1896 history of the Fourth N.H. Regiment, the unit’s historian, former First Sergeant John G. Hutchinson, wrote “We shall never forget that autumn day when we marched down Elm Street and boarded the cars for the South, amid the cheers and waving of handkerchiefs of the crowds on the street, as well as the goodbyes and well wishes of our loved ones.” He added some lines of poetry: “September twenty-seventh, we went away—To encounter hardship, danger and strife—The Boys in Blue against the Boys in Gray—Oh! How many were called to give up life!” The soldiers marched south on Elm Street from the fairgrounds to the railroad station on Granite Street. The buildings along the route were decorated with flags and ribbons. The former Manchester Cornet Band, now reconstituted as the regimental band, played rousing patriotic music in the spirit of the occasion. But a sense of dread also hung over the celebration. The men had enlisted for three long years—what would be their fate? Certainly, many tears were shed when the band played the sentimental tune “The Girl I Left Behind Me” as a farewell.
During the next several months, the Fourth N.H. Regiment was stationed at Port Royal, S.C. Camping nearby was the Third N.H. Regiment, which had been organized in Concord in August 1861. This unit also had an excellent band. The two groups often played together, and the bandsmen occasionally amused themselves and the soldiers by holding musical competitions.
On July 29, 1862, the War Department ordered the mustering out of the regimental bands due to the great expense of maintaining them. Walter Dignam and his band returned to Manchester by the end of September, but this was not the end of the story.
Next week: Walter Dignam and the “second band” of the Fourth N.H. Regiment.